Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have succeeded in locking up a bill that would have enabled the federal government at last to begin living up to a promise it made 27 years ago (see page 13). The measure called for a $2.5 billion increase in spending under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The legislation, among other things, would have enabled educators to provide more assistive technologies to students with disabilities. A number of highly effective technologies are available now that can give such students a more equal chance to learn at the same rate as their classmates.

Without so much as an apology to the White House, the House has changed the President’s education motto from “no child left behind” to “no able-bodied child left behind.” It couldn’t have been easy for those House Republicans to come out looking so callous, especially during the holiday season. It couldn’t have been easy, but they rose to the challenge.

Circumstances forced their hand, they explained. Basically, the House Republicans said they had to block the special ed funding for three reasons: timing, integrity, and competing priorities:

Timing

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, says the time just isn’t right to give students with disabilities a level learning field. In fact, he says, the whole IDEA funding debate should wait until later in 2002, after a presidential commission has had time to study the program.

Hard to imagine what fresh insights the commission will discover. After all, Congress and the White House have had nearly three decades to study this program. It should be clear to all by now: The federal government is paying too little.

Lawmakers back in 1975 had that insight right from the start. That’s why they promised to pay 40 percent of the costs the new law would impose on our schools. IDEA advocates and successive generations of kids with disabilities are still waiting. Right now, the federal government pays less than half of what was promised, about 16 percent of the costs.

Integrity

But timing isn’t the whole story. With cynicism of breathtaking proportions, some actually argue that blocking IDEA funding will preserve integrity in education. These knights of the right are worried, they say, that increased funding for special ed could induce schools to willfully mis-classify students. You and your colleagues would find disabilities where none existed, just so more students would qualify for new funding. Audits and criminal penalties for fraud could hardly dissuade you, these House detectives declare, so they’ve thoughtfully removed the temptation.

Competing priorities

But the House Republicans are not unmoved by the plight of students with disabilities nor with your struggle to provide equal and appropriate education. On the contrary, it’s their special sensitivity that led some in the House leadership to block the IDEA spending increases. They were alarmed, they say, at the prospect of pitting one group of students against another.

As Rep. Boehner explains it, Congress would be forced to give with one hand while taking away with the other. “Why would we want to pit poor children against disabled children?” he asks.

Alternatives

Wait a minute. Maybe there are some others we could pit children against. If we’re diligent, perhaps we could spare House Republicans the awful prospect of watching one group of needy children vie with another. The House majority might reconsider a few of its other proposals, where a spare $2.5 billion just might be found.

How about that proposed repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax, for example? That little bauble is worth right around $25 billion. The House Republicans want to refund those corporate tax payments made during the past 16 years. Apart from the merits of giving multi-billion corporations a tax holiday, what if the Republicans were to nip off just two years, call for 14 years of refunds? Right there, you’d have enough to fund the IDEA increase.

Don’t like that one? Well, how about taking another look at the “bonus depreciation” measure House Republicans are pushing for corporations. This bill would speed up the way companies deduct the costs of new equipment from their taxes. House Republicans want to let firms subtract an extra 30 percent of new equipment and property costs from their income in the first year, writing off the rest over the regular, fixed schedule. Price tag: $39 billion. Just tap the brakes lightly, slow down this accelerated depreciation vehicle just a little, and: Voila! You’d have your $2.5 billion.

Every sector of the economy has its special interests. By some lights, nearly all the measures championed by the House Republicans have merit. In a sputtering economy, corporations might well need more tax relief. Trouble is, they don’t need it more than kids with disabilities need a better chance of succeeding in our society.